Autism May Be Diagnosed Early by Sense of Smell

profile picture of Anisa Arsenault
ByAnisa Arsenault
Associate Editor
Mar 2017
Hero Image
Photo: Shutterstock

We recently told you that tracking an infant’s eye patterns can help detect autism earlier. But a new study is relying on a different sense for early detection: smell.

A simple sniff test accurately determined whether or not a toddler had autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 81 percent of the time. Researchers noticed that unlike those without ASD, autistic kids didn’t adjust their sniffing patterns when encountering an unpleasant scent. So while people without autism may try and limit the flow of air through their noses in, say, a public bathroom, those with autism don’t make that adjustment.

While kids without autism adjusted sniffing within 305 milliseconds of smelling a foul odor, autistic children didn’t adjust it at all. Study author Noam Sobel of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science explains this is indicative of brain templates not coordinating senses with actions.

Researchers recorded he olfactory responses of 18 autistic and 18 other children with an average age of seven. But Noam thinks this test could be effective for children only a few months old.

“We can identify autism and its severity with meaningful accuracy within less than 10 minutes, using a test that is completely non-verbal and entails no task to follow,” Sobel says. “This raises the hope that these findings could form the base for development of a diagnostic tool that can be applied very early on, such as in toddlers only a few months old. Such early diagnosis would allow for more effective intervention.”

Currently, autism typically isn’t diagnosed until ages four or five.

Related Video

Q&A: Baby’s Two-Year Checkup?

Dr. Cheryl Wu

Baby’s 15-Month Checkup?

Bob Sears, MD, pediatrician in private practice in Dana Point, California

Could Pediatricians Be Doing More for Parents?

Anisa Arsenault
Associate Editor

AAP Issues New Guidelines for Pediatric Waiting Rooms

Natalie Neusch
Contributing Writer

What Every Parent Needs to Know About Autism

Margarita Bertsos
Contributing Writer

AAP Checkup Updates: What You Need to Know

Cassie Kreitner
Senior Editor

Top 10 Questions Parents Ask at the Newborn Well Visit

Dina DiMaggio, MD, and Anthony F. Porto, MD, MPH

Three-Year Checkup?

Diane Bloomfield, MD, attending pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in Bronx, New York